Mai Perso - Travel adventures

A Brief Lesson on Panama Hats

June 3, 2012


As we flew in and out of Cuba through Panama, we decided to make a short stop, check the Canal and get a feel for the place. See if it warrants a longer stay on a future trip.
The smells and sights of Cuba were still fresh in our minds. For a very short time, it felt good to be back on the grid. Our phones were working again and wifi can be found anywhere in Panama. Over two hundred emails have been waiting patiently for my attention as well as several un attended voicemails. The iPhone and iPad came back to life.
We settled in the Sheraton and left for a rendezvous with Carlos, the local cab driver turned tour guide, who will be showing us around town today.
We started at the Panama Canal. Coming from Holland, the concept of water lifts is obviously not new, and while the scale here is big, the water works in Holland are as if not more impressive, and started much earlier in time. I was more excited from the signs warning you of Crocodiles, then the history of the Canal.
Panama Canal, Check.

The skyline of Panama City is impressive. We have seen it a couple of times on the way to and from South America and this visit allowed for some more time to take it in.
We then asked Carlos to drop us in the old city of Panama. This area started as a slaves/canal diggers colony when the French made the first attempt to dig the canal in the early 19th century. The area is being fully restored with grants from the government helping the push. I could not stop thinking that Havana could look the same with the right investment.
We struck a conversation with Carlos, who turned out to be a very knowledgable guy, about Panama’s turnaround in the past thirty odd years. Going from a brutal dictatorship to a modern democracy. The initial pain of the transition and how leadership with a clear vision and determination, managed to turn Panama to a place with so many opportunities for the willing.

If you have been following my blogs in the past, you already know that I have a tendency to find out some very fundamental facts about places I travel to, en’ route to the location. In Panama I learned that Panama Hats come from Ecuador. There you have it. If you want a real, Fine Woven Panama Hat, go to Ecuador or order it online.
A Fine Panama Hat can take up to 40 days to weave, and can cost upward of 25,000 US$. Also, the Montecristi hats sold in Panama, are most likely not Montecristi. They are more often Montecrooky. They may be nice and they are probably from Panama, which I guess makes them genuine Panama Hats, but they don’t pass as such.
You get the gist of it. I’ll get off the subject. So now that I know all the Panamanian vital statistics, I can go and enjoy the place.
Carlos recommended a couple of places for lunch and dinner. Panama is considered one of the best south American culinary spots, and with Carlos’ help, we had no chance of enjoying it. Both restaurants were good, but neither was Panamanian. The food surely beat the bland Cuban meals, but failed to introduce us to the true Cuban Cuisine. We did see more Habaneros on the menus in Panama then in Havana, the cradle of the Habaneros you would think. Once again, as I have learned, Habaneros can be found in Havana but actually come from the Amazons.
So Panama Hats aren’t from Panama, Habaneros aren’t from Havana, and soon I may find out that BMW is a Korean brand….
After a long stroll criss crossing the restored streets of Panama’s colonial quarter and pondering what would Havana look like with similar investment, we took a quick break and drove to the Causeway. A stretch of landfill from the dugout of the Canal, that connects three island and the city of Panama. It includes touristic restaurants, duty free stores and a long promenade, facing the city skyline from across the bay. Yacht harbors along the walkway and a beautiful vista if you are into city silhouettes. Alas, as with many modern developments, the area lacks character and is a distant second attraction to the Casco Viejo, the old city of Panama.
We left Panama without a Hat and no authentic Panamanian food, but agreed to come back and explore it further some time. It seamed to have the combination of modern comfort and old heritage mixed with tropical nature, we like.
Maybe next time we can combine Panama and Costa Rica in a two week Motorcycle adventure. It should be easy to get our motorbikes over here…


A Tale of Three Economies

June 1, 2012

Here is a story for you. Say you need to get from Havana to Trinidad. A five hour travel crossing Cuba from North to South, on roads passing by scenery varying from long stretches of sugar cane fields, “The heart of the radiation and feeding the Revolucion” as one sign quoted Fidel. Mango, Avocado and Coco plantations. The road you take is a combination of freeway, smaller provincial roads and a few connecting streets through local towns or elsewhere.
If you are a tourist, you have exchanged your money, preferably Euros, since US dollars get a 10% hair-cut just because, to CUCs or Convertibles as they referred to locally.
You buy a ticket at the “Via Azul” Station for 6 CUC per person, by no means an expensive trip for a decent air conditioned bus and a 250-300 km trip. This is your Alternative economy. Managed by the Revolution, which is how Cubans refer to the central government, tourist pricing is controlled through a parallel currency.
Now if you are a regular hard-working local Cuban person, you have a few options.
Since your monthly salary is somewhere between 250 and 1,000 local Pesos. Conversion rate is 1:25 CUC, so you are making 10CUC a month if you are a worker and four or five time as much if you are a doctor at a hospital. Remember, it’s socialism. Give what you can and get what you need.
Back to our Trinidad road trip, if you are Cuban and want to travel in grand, you will pay a week’s salary and board the bus at the station with the tourists. Your luggage will be stowed and off you go. Alternatively, you will board a locals only bus, the trip will take closer to 10 hours, changing busses often and sharing the equivalent of a mini bus with two hundred other passengers. I kid you not, I lost a couple of bets on the question if all these people will fit In a bus at the station, and they always did…
This is the second economy, still state owned but tailored to the local means and supported by the Revolucion. Running on the local currency that allows the government to control subsidies, “distribution of wealth” or more like “sustainability of poverty…”
And then there is the parallel economy. We all know that many countries are run on a combo of corrupt officials or non taxable transactions, barters and the likes. In fact, Greece is about to go under for the same reason.
In Cuba, it’s a necessity since there is no other way for you, even if you are a very talented and enterprising individual, to make more money and avoid living in poverty.
Our trip to Trinidad was strewn with the triciary economy. A couple on the bus boarded in Cienfuegos at the last minute, ushered to the bus by the via Azul ticket master, with no tickets. The bus driver got a cut, the inspector may get a cut if they board the bus for control, and the ticket master will pocket the rest. Six CUCs, not bad for one tourist couple, a boost of 50% to his monthly income. The guy had Adidas shoes on…
At the edge of town, a small group of people were standing and waving with bills of local pesos. The driver stopped and picked them up. He dropped them off again at the edge of town before we arrived. Another hundred plus Pesos pocketed.
The bus stopped a half dozen times along the way, picking up Milk, Pineapples, Mangos and other produce from farmers along the way, which will be sold later today on the streets of Havana. An enterprising bus driver is a very profitable commerce profession in Cuba. You get the profit and the government picks up the tab for the cost of distribution (the bus… ), free of tax.
So here you go. Capitalism in a Social sheepskin. The entrepreneurs thrive, the “people” live a tight economical life, and people in powerful government position profit from all three economies. Kind ‘a like in the US isn’t it?
The difference, if you live in the west, you have a false sense of freedom and endless possibilities. That is if you are well off. Not the case for some hopeless family among the millions of western families, American in particular, who live at or below the poverty line.
In Cuba, you know it’s hopeless, so you just try and make the best out of it and if you are smart and quick on your feet, you have a pretty decent life.
Oh by the way, School, all the way through university, is free and so is the healthcare system. Literacy is high and kids birth mortality is low. Families have fewer kids and see them through school and into higher education more often then not.

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not promoting socialism, even though my belief is that the western European Social Democratic formula is a pretty good balance between democracy and sharing of wealth. More like social responsibility then socialism. But the interesting aspect of seeing Cuba, is that since the revolution, the rich are a little less rich and the poor are a lot less poor. They support each other through life.
I don’t believe the model will last past Fidel and Raul, but the people here who are older then 54 and have experienced Totalitarian Cuba, and then Socialist Cuba, may end up opening up in a way that is closer to the European model then the “survival of the fittest” that is the core of the social economical mantra of the US.
Pardon my digression. A trip to a socialistic country tends to get me there…
It’s raining in Cuba. We are here inn June, during the rainy season. Avishy Cohen is playing a mellow jazz tune on my iPad, offset by a song by the Buena Vista Social Club. Both seem suitable to the passing by lush terrain.
I like Cuba in a special way. Reaching the final stage of this trip, back in Havana, I got all I was imagining I will. Including the three economies. It left me with a taste of more. Next time probably earlier in the season, to avoid the humidity and heat.

Angelo’s Coco Taxi

June 1, 2012

When traveling, we often find a group of local people who become our support group. People who can tell us the places to go, stay, the “in” restaurants, dos and don’ts.
In Havana we befriended two people, Angelo, the Coco Taxi driver and an aspiring film maker I will call Martin (Scorsese) so that I can describe our conversations without putting him in jeopardy.
We are used to have our own transportation and going to an island that is about 1,000 km long seamed like we could cover all the main attractions in one week. By day two, and one reality check further, we agreed to focus on Havana and Trinidad for this trip. The drive to Trinidad is a six hour affair in a decent airco’d “Via Azul” bus. We had to get tickets a day earlier to ensure we get a spot. Lined along the Plaza the San Francisco de Asis in Havana Vieja, were 20 Ladas, courtesy of the Soviet era in Cuba, and a handful of old American cabs, the signature transportation of Havana. At the end of the row, was Angelo, with his Coco Taxi. The coco taxis are a coco nut like yellow shell, with a 175cc Vespa engine built into them, made for tourists. The locals use mostly the bicycle taxis who officially aren’t allowed to take tourists.
We were hassled by a group of taxi drivers and insisted on going with Angelo. The trip from Havana Vieja to the bus terminal, took about thirty minutes. Five minutes into it, we were in deep conversation with Angelo. Married, son Angelo jr. (12) and daughter Chantal (7). Angelo gave us the grand tour of Havana, stopping for photos at the house where Che and his security team lived when they got to Havana in the late fifties, through Miramar, the affluent neighborhood of town, the John Lennon square with his statue and 24 hours a day guard making sure his glasses don’t get stolen again, and the Plaza de Revolucion, surrounded with the headquarters of the defense ministry and the secret service building. Angelo kept the party line, complaining a bit about his income but praising the revolution for taking care of the people and the interest of Cuba. He also said the most important place to see and the main attraction in Havana was the Plaza de Revolucion, just in case his little three wheel coco taxi had a listening device planted in it. He invited us to a chilled glass of freshly squeezed sugar cane juice and pointed out to us the most important building in town, not far from the Havana university campus, the house where his mother in law lives…
We took a quick round on campus and ended at a small Casa Particolare restaurant called Arie’s, across the street from the university. The place, has two dining rooms and a tiny kitchen. It aw 3pm and we were famished. A grilled filet of Red Snapper and a Lamb stew were a welcomed lunch. Both were a too salty and we’re accompanied with the standard Cuban slices of cucumber, tomato and shredded cabbage. More about the local food later. For now, we took a stall through more streets lined up with magnificent falling apart houses away for Vdado, the once glorious area lined with casinos like Vegas and owned by the American mafia, towards the ocean and back to the Casa de Emillio for a late siesta. By the time we got back to Havana Vieja, heavy rain drops were coming down with rolling thunder and gray sky. June is the beginning of the summer and a down pour of rain is a common event.
While Safta was taking a nap, I sat at the common family room and was reading about Trinidad and the Spiriti Sanctus province. A few minutes later, Martin comes by and we get into a conversation about life, career, aspiration and inevitably politics. Martin is studying marketing and communications. He is working to make the equivalent of 10 $ a month which will last him through an evening in a bar, and bare necessities.
He started by explaining that the Revolution cares about the people. The Revolution is being used here both for the uprise of Che and Fidel in the fifties as well as a general term to describe the government of Cuba. Thanks to the Revolucion, Cuba provides free education and health care that is of the best in Latin America Martin says.
As the conversation continues, he starts describing the difference between the young generation and the older generation supporting the government.the interesting thing about Cuba is that the revolution is relatively young. 54 years. So there is only one generation in the country, Martins’ that is of age and don’t experience the country before the revolution. I never thought about it this way. Martin’s Dad, lived life here and although indoctrinated by the revolution, had a different life to compare and was still passionate about the advantages of the revolution. Martin understood why but was carefully poking holes in the one size fits all approach of the government.
The discrepancy between the capability of an individual and their income drives mediocrity, he said. Lots of people have no incentive to work harder.when I challenged him with what would he choose,free school or making more money, I got him thinking. Literacy and art are big in Cuba. People born after the revolution, 50 year and younger, have a literacy rate of close to 100%, higher then most western countries and a far cry from all of south America.
At some point, as we were talking about the benefit and peril of opening up to the west, lessons learned from the Soviet era in Cuba and the post soviet period, the rain stopped. By 7 o’clock at night, the sky was blue, temperature back at 30 degrees Celsius and the only sign for the passing storm, were big puddles in the large potholes on the streets of Havana. The neighbor, across the street, used the water to wash his old brown Fiat 650cc with improvised air vents adding a Ferrari look to the ancient, and now clean, mobil.
Another quick shower, the third today, washing off the tropical stickiness of the resident humidity and off we go in search of a Mojitos, Daikiri and another spectacular local band in a local bar on Calle Obispo.